Joy isn’t something
we have to find. Joy
is who we are if we’re
not preoccupied with
—CHARLOTTE JOKO BECK
WHAT HAPPENED NEXT surprised me. Everything in my life was moving forward at a steady pace. I’d found my teachers. Pooh and I were unraveling the mysteries of meditation. Michael was pleased that I seemed to be feeling better and was getting out more. And me? I couldn’t stop crying.
One of my favorite literary wits, Dorothy Parker, was known for her exclamation, “What fresh hell is this?” I kept asking myself that question as I wandered around our loft, often on the verge of tears. I pretended to be okay when Michael was there, but as soon as he left I’d fall into long spells of walking and weeping.
One day Michael came up to the loft unexpectedly in the middle of the day. I was pacing around crying uncontrollably when he walked in and caught me by surprise. I felt trapped. I didn’t want him to see me like that.
“Why did you come up here without calling first?” I asked.
He was taken aback by my question and my tears. He asked what was wrong, but since I didn’t know what was wrong, I just said I needed time to be by myself and wished he would let me know when he was coming upstairs.
I must have hit a nerve, because he responded by telling me that this was his home, too, and he should be able to come up whenever he wished, and things went quickly downhill from there.
“For God’s sake, Michael, you have your office and your studio downstairs. There is nowhere here I can be alone,” I shouted.
Michael just turned around and stormed out. The heavy door slammed behind him with a loud thud.
I threw myself down on the couch in the living room area and cried even more. Finally, I calmed down. I got up and went around the corner to my writing room, an area separated by two eight-foot walls that didn’t reach to the twenty-foot loft ceiling. The walls kept my office and sitting room out of sight, but they provided no real solitude for me. There was no completely private place to hide out in our loft, other than the bathroom.
Pooh was resting on the blue couch in my office. He had wisely decided not to get anywhere near the fracas on the other side of the wall. I sat down next to him, exhausted.
“What is wrong with me, Pooh? I’m falling apart. And now I’ve attacked Michael when he’s been doing everything he can to help.”
“Well, there is no denying you are a bit of a mess today, Kat—as you have been for the past few days. Perhaps it was easier for you to cope when you were hoping you were not going to be around much longer,” Pooh said gently.
“I don’t understand, Pooh. I felt so depressed and hopeless before—I didn’t see how I could go on. At least now I’m starting to get back into life. Wouldn’t you think I would feel better?”
“You do feel better, Kat, and that is exactly why you are in such a state. The impact of what is going on in your life is starting to sink in.”
And then it hit me. The discussions with Dad and his rage at losing Mom to Alzheimer’s. Mom asking me, “So, where are you living now, honey?” ten times during a five-minute conversation. My menopausal hot flashes and sleepless nights getting up to change my nightgown and sit in front of a fan.
“Oh my God, Pooh, you’re right. Before, I was so depressed I was too numb to feel anything. Now it’s all flooding in. How heartbroken I am not being able to really connect with Mom any longer. How angry I am at the way Dad treats her like a child and refuses to get any help. How frustrated I am because just as I was getting my health back, my hormones and sleeplessness are zapping my energy. And I’m feeling tremendous pressure to pretend to Michael that I’m making progress, so he won’t feel we have wasted money by continuing with my therapy and getting Catzenbear.”
“Yes, Kat. You are waking up and becoming aware. You are feeling again. No more numbness,” Pooh said.
“No wonder I can’t stop crying.” I took a deep breath, letting this realization wash over me.
Pooh sat quietly. Then he said, “Do you remember when I jumped into that open skylight, and it turned out the ceiling I thought I was going to land on was made of paper, and I fell twenty feet into the neighbor’s loft?”
Our private roof garden had a small opening to the roof of our block-long loft building. Michael had designed it that way so he could provide access to his crew when they needed to make repairs. Pooh had figured out how to get through the opening and often spent his days exploring various parts of the building’s roof. Since all the third-floor lofts in the building had skylights, he was able to look in on our neighbors when their skylights were open. One day he had decided to visit one of our neighbors by jumping through their open skylight, landing on a ceiling made only of paper, which of course could not withstand the weight of a twenty-pound cat.
“Of course I remember that, Pooh. It took us all day to figure out where you were, since our neighbors were out of town. You were not in excellent shape when we found you.”
“True. But I did have time to be alone and lick my wounds,” Pooh said knowingly. “You do not.”
I looked at him and thought about the significance of what he’d said.
Just then Catzenbear bounced in. He tried to get up on the couch but couldn’t, and fell in a heap on the rug. He immediately got up and tried again with the same result. And again, and again.
I laughed at how determined he was and then picked him up and put him on my lap. He immediately jumped off to go over and bat at Pooh. Pooh gave him a small hiss, and Catzenbear curled up next to him to go to sleep.
“Catz is so adorable, Pooh. He’s such a little clown, isn’t he?”
“Catzenbear does whatever comes into his mind, with no self-consciousness to get in the way. You do realize, Kat, that his antics just helped shift your mood. Do you feel the difference?”
“I do. So what are you saying? If I allow myself to let in my feelings of grief and anger, I can also begin to experience joy?” I reached over and picked up Catzenbear and kissed him on his nose. Then I put him back next to Pooh.
“That is exactly what I am saying, Kat,” Pooh replied, as he allowed Catzenbear to snuggle in next to him again.
Later that evening I apologized to Michael. I was honest with him about my hiding out so I wouldn’t disappoint him. I told him I was trying to act like I was feeling better, because my definition of feeling better didn’t include fits of crying and I didn’t want him to worry.
Michael gave me a hug and told me how much he loved me and that he appreciated my honesty. He said he wanted to go flyfishing and suggested we get away for a few days, thinking the change of scenery might be good for us. He looked down at Catz and Pooh and said it would be easy to take them along.
The next week we all drove up to the cabin we occasionally rented in Hot Creek. The weather was perfect in the mountains, just warm enough to enjoy being outside. When Michael set off every morning to fish, I’d walk along with him down the winding path through the grassy meadow to the river. Sometimes I’d stay down there for a while, watching the water surge and swirl around the rocks and fallen logs before going back up to the cabin.
At our loft in Los Angeles, I’d been taking photographs using high-speed black-and-white film to try to capture Catzenbear in action. The loft had great lighting from all the large windows and skylights, but because there was so much open space, it was hard to keep up with him. The cabin here was small so I was able to get within a few feet, and the morning light was perfect. I threw Catz a toy mouse to play with on the couch and started shooting. Later, when I developed the film, I saw I had captured him in a back flip. What a picture of absolute, unabashed joy! Every time I look at it, I get a big grin on my face.
Pooh was sitting on the chair near the couch, where he had been watching my photography efforts with half-closed eyes. Catzenbear became bored with the toy mouse and went off to explore other parts of the cabin, so this seemed like a good time to meditate. I got my meditation cushion, settled in, and when I found my place—that spot where my body felt most comfortably propped on the cushion—I closed my eyes and watched my thoughts. How happy and content I was in this moment. Then the thought that we would be going back downtown in a few days came up like a big thundercloud, and I started feeling sad. Next my mind went to the thought that neither of my parents had been able to visit us in the loft, and now it was too late for Mom to come. Then I wondered if Michael had caught any fish for dinner. I kept coming back to my breathing and the still point of my hands in my lap as I watched all the thoughts, happy and sad, and let them pass.
And so it went, with Pooh sitting right beside me. When I opened my eyes and looked at the clock, I was surprised to find that more than an hour had passed. I picked up my journal and went outside to write down what I remembered of my meditation, leaving the two cats asleep in the chair.
Late in the afternoon, I went off to find Michael. Wanting a high vantage point from which to look for him, I followed the path up to the rocky cliff that overlooked the entire meadow. The tall grass was gently bending and blowing in the warm breeze, and the beauty of the deep blue river meandering through the soft golden grass made me wish I’d brought my camera. The sun was going down, turning everything a soft amber color, and the swallows began swooping around the cliff, darting after insects that must have thought the end of the day a safe time to come out. Michael saw me and waved, and we both started back.
We met at the bend in the river and walked together while he talked about his day. This was a catch-and-release river, but you could keep enough fish for your own dinner, and Michael proudly showed me the three good-sized trout he’d kept. Plenty of fish for all four of us, I thought with a smile.
We got to the cabin just as it was getting dark and a little chilly, so I went into the bedroom to put on a sweater. Pooh was on the bed. I gave him a hug and told him how much joy I had felt watching the swallows do their daredevil acts off the cliffs. Catzenbear came in and tried to get on the bed and couldn’t, so I picked him up and left him with Pooh while I went to help Michael prepare our dinner.
That night, I decided to read Charlotte Beck’s Everyday Zen to see whether she had written anything about joy in that book, as she had in another of her books I’d read several weeks before. It was on the first page: “My dog doesn’t worry about the meaning of life. She may worry if she doesn’t get breakfast, but she doesn’t sit around worrying about whether she will get fulfilled or liberated or enlightened.” What a joyful state of being.
I looked over at Michael, asleep on the couch with Catzenbear sprawled on his chest, and had to laugh at how fulfilled, liberated, and enlightened they both seemed. I turned to Pooh and told him I was beginning to understand how important the ability to feel joy was to my meditation practice.
“I am glad you see this, Kat,” said Pooh. “Your feeling joy will help you let go of sadness and grief. When you are not trying to avoid feelings or hang on to feelings in meditation, you can just sit and watch them flow by. You begin to understand that all of these feelings are, as Ram Dass said, ‘grist for the mill.’”
“Hmmm, I didn’t know you were familiar with Ram Dass, Pooh.”
Pooh stood up and stretched. “There is a lot you do not know about me, Kat,” he said as he leaped to the floor and headed for the kitchen. “Now that you are paying attention, you will begin to see what has been right before your eyes all this time.”
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